January 23, 2016


Ian Rankin: 'Rebus has elements of a maverick American PI' : About to embark on an American books tour, the author of the Rebus novels explains why crime fiction is a means of exploring the dark side of the modern world (Colin Drury, 22 January 2016, The Guardian)

"The great thing about America," he says, "is I always come back with more books and more tip-offs of who to read. It's a country in love with crime fiction."

Talking to the 55-year-old is hugely enjoyable. He's wry, straightforward and affable. His mop-top and lack of airs can lull you into forgetting how ultra-successful he is. It shouldn't. This is the single biggest-selling British crime author alive. He's been awarded an OBE, had his work translated into 36 languages and amassed a personal fortune estimated at £25m ("Hasn't someone just sat in the pub and made that up?" he once scoffed).

Quite often, these days, he is accused of writing literature.

That may be because his works are more than mere whodunnits. The fact the Rebus series is set in real time in a real city means contemporary social issues form a constant backdrop. Immigration, addiction, sectarianism and the corruptive nature of finance have all been addressed. [...]

Rankin himself was born in Fife in the former mining village of Cardenden ("full of scooter hooligans"). He moved to the capital for university and wrote his earliest novels while studying a PhD in literature. He was first published at age 26 and the debut Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, came a year later in 1987.

"I never had any desire to write crime actually," he says. "Back then no one was writing about contemporary Edinburgh and I couldn't understand why. It's such a Jekyll and Hyde city; it's cultured and historic but it also had the worst heroin problem in western Europe and appalling HIV rates. There was real poverty. And those contrasts should be meat and drink to a writer. Rebus started as a vehicle for that."

For a decade after that first book the character remained obscure. Rankin and wife Miranda Harvey - the parents of two sons, both now in their 20s - struggled to make ends meet. He suffered panic attacks for a time. It was only when 1997's Black and Blue was named novel of the year by the UK Crime Writers' Association that fans came flocking.

But why does Rebus, a hard-drinking, hard-bitten loner, resonate with readers around the world?

"I don't know," admits Rankin. "He's an outsider, and people are perhaps drawn to that. We like those who bend rules; we get a vicarious thrill from being alongside them. He works for the police but he has elements of a maverick American PI and that may widen the appeal."

Rankin's prose probably help too. His influences include US legends Lawrence Block and James Ellroy. He once had dinner with the latter - "surprisingly quiet, very thoughtful, a good listener".

Yet Rankin's work is definitively his own. Fast, gothic, abrasive; it's been called tartan noir. Plots tend to start small and spread into arcs of power abuse. Not that he plans it, as such.

"When I'm writing," he admits, "I won't know whodunnit until maybe two thirds of the way through. Until then I know as little as my detective. I just make it up as I go along. It's nerve-wracking, actually. You'll be half through and not know your conclusion. You worry one of these days the ending won't come. I'll be left with only two-thirds of a novel."

Posted by at January 23, 2016 8:49 AM